Professor of English

Professor of English
issue 04 | winter 2018
In Memoriam - Professor of English - Winter 2018

Everyone who knew him has a memory of Jim Davis’s zaniness. His insisting, when betting, on making the stakes thirty-seven cents. If he lost, he wrote a check. His taping a tiny plastic baby to a memo or a paper he returned to a student. He had a drawer full of them. His high school debating years when he wore a pink suit to competitions. “But,” he would be sure to clarify, “the suit did not look pink in the store!” His arranging his vinyl record collection by the color of the jacket edge, going from reds to oranges to yellows to blues, on down the rainbow. Somehow he knew where his Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin was in that system. Sometime during his first six years in Granville when he lived in an apartment in the College Townhouse, he changed the ’60s song “I’m a Girlwatcher” by the O’Kaysions to “I’m a Townhouser” with lyrics to match, performing his rendition upon request—or without request. His unfailingly invoking such anachronistic exclamations as “Lord, love a duck!” His asking near the end of any restaurant meal, “So, who else is thinking about dessert?” because Davis was always thinking about dessert. His cheesecakes were legendary. His love of such rhetorical devices as zeugma (the application of a single word to two or more nouns when its sense is appropriate to only one of them or to both in different ways). Example: She exhausted her repertoire and her audience. His love of such words as “zeugma.”

On March 8, 2017, Davis died of cancer in Dublin, Ohio, at age 63. He leaves his mother, Juanita “Nita” Steuwe Davis; his daughters, Madeline Minklei Davis and Natalie Davis Minklei; their mother, Lisa Minklei; his sister, Linda Kay Davis; and his partner, Lisa Savage. 

Davis earned a B.A. from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, an M.A. from the University of Kansas, and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He joined the English department at Denison in 1985, serving as chair from 1999 to 2002. He was named the Lorena Woodrow Burke Chair in 2015. He served on virtually every campus governance committee during three decades at Denison and was chair of the faculty from 2009 to 2010.

Davis’s scholarship includes publications on the works of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. His book The Rowman and Littlefield Guide to Writing with Sources is currently in its fourth edition.

As a teacher, Davis had no peer. In the classroom he was constantly in motion, his verbal fluidity matching a fluid choreography, even indicating punctuation marks by crouching, cowering, or stretching his body. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights became, in his class, a 19th-century Elvis singing a few bars of “Hound Dog” or “Love Me Tender.” One student spoke for many when he wrote, “I have a whole shelf of books at home that I cannot read without hearing his voice.” 

Students in his writing courses benefited from his impatience with careless or superficial treatments of a topic. One student remembers that Davis “allowed me to write about topics I was interested in while framing the discussion with a critical lens. He pushed me to be a stronger writer and to expand my thinking beyond basic concepts into deeper critical thinking.”

Davis never tired of claiming that Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” was “the greatest poem ever!” If a colleague tried to dispute him, pointing out, for instance, that Coleridge left the poem incomplete, he would respond with the insistence, “Never were sound, rhythm, and sense so well united.” It wouldn’t take much to move him to recite the poem, appropriately choreographed. 

The poem in fact captures much of who Jim Davis was: a wild exuberance, a fascination with all natural and artistic creations, a vibrant embracing of life itself. His friends, colleagues, and students will always hear, as in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” the “symphony and song” that was Jim Davis, their own “holy and enchanted” Xanadu.  —Dennis Read, associate professor emeritus

Published December 2017